Olbermann, who anchors a one-hour nightly news show on MSNBC called Countdown With Keith Olbermann, closes his show every night by saying "1,547th [for instance] day since Mission Accomplished in Iraq," an hommage to Ted Koppel's "Iran Hostage" coverage, which evolved into Koppel's late-night ABC news show Nightline (the MSNBC show was originally Countdown: Iraq). Then Olbermann throws his crumpled script at the camera, which shatters, a simulated digital effect (something Koppel never did).
"Our charge for the immediate future is to stay out of the way of the news," he explained when the show debuted on March 31, 2003. "News is news. We will not be screwing around with it," a reference to Bill O'Reilly, his rival over at Fox News in the 8 pm time slot. "It will not be a show in which opinion and facts are juxtaposed so as to appear to be the same."
Olbermann, who looks more like a high school teacher than a glitzy TV anchor, is the one who cuts and dices the news of the day into five segments, what he and his staff consider the day's top stories, illustrated with news reports from NBC News correspondents, interviews with newsmakers, whom he treats courteously, interspersed with signature witty interjections (calling 9/11 Rudolph "Giuliani's red badge of courage"), further interrupted by new ways to look at the news.
Olbermann does news quizzes and a puppet theater. Beginning with the Michael Jackson trial, he created comedic puppet "re-enactments" of news stories, using printed photographs glued to popsicle sticks, hand-held in front of a blue screen. Olbermann did the voiceovers himself. My favorites were the "Karl Rove Puppet Theatre" and the "Anna Nicole Smith Supreme Court Puppet Theatre," although the Mel Gibson and Paris Hilton puppets were not too shabby.
A segment called "Oddball" regularly assays the day's collection of weird videos, goofy stories with goofy clips of people behaving like idiots, announced with the clarion "Let's play Oddball!"
Each night he picks the Worst Person in the World, awarding a bronze medal (worse), a silver (worser) and a gold (worst). Bill O'Reilly has the distinction of winning all three top spots on a single broadcast (the night of November 30, 2005); as of June he had gone gold fifty-seven times.
What I like about Olbermann as a newscaster is that he makes the evening news look like life itself, very absurd but serious, very angry, very stupid, very silly, very snarky, very much about pop culture. He gives the news in a language that can be understood by news audiences today. It is refreshing to hear a straight newsman making cultural references. If the voting goes heavily Democratic, he told the co-anchor of MSNBC's election night 2006 coverage, Chris Matthews, "you might see some sort of shift toward getting out of that war faster than Britney Spears just got out of her marriage." His was the only show where I could stand to hear about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Brangelina, Britney and estranged husband Kevin Federline, American Idol results or other stories he always told us his producers were forcing him to cover.
This is Olbermann's second stint at MSNBC. In 1997-98 he hosted a talk show called The Big Show, but he left the network after clashes with management over an edict from the suits to focus on the unfolding Monica Lewinsky scandal, which especially sickened him.
This time around, MSNBC execs gave him the freedom to do the news his way, since they had nothing to lose. Nineteen other shows had already failed opposite The O'Reilly Factor since 1996. Countdown is now the highest-rated show on MSNBC, which doesn't say much, as MSNBC is ratings-challenged. Still, his ratings in July were up 88 percent over last year.